Pope Francis has said that media organisations that produce fake news and stories about scandals risk becoming like people who have a morbid fascination with eating excrement. The pontiff told Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio that the media must not partake in 'coprophilia' —an abnormal interest in excrement.

The 79-year-old said consumers of these types of stories risked behaving like coprophagics, people who eat faeces, and that the spreading of disinformation is a sin. Using graphic terminology the Buenos Aires-born pope's comments come as proliferation of fake news websites has sparked debate across the globe.

He said: "I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into – no offence intended – the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true.

"And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, a lot of damage can be done."

Discussing the accusation that the media is used to slander politicians he said: "The means of communication have their own temptations, they can be tempted by slander, and therefore used to slander people, to smear them, this above all in the world of politics," he said.

"They can be used as means of defamation. No one has a right to do this. It is a sin and it is hurtful."

The eyebrow-raising interview was distributed in an Italian translation from the pope's native Spanish. It is not the first time the pope has used the term in this context. In an interview with Italian newspaper, La Stampa, in 2012, he said: "Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women – that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects."

Observers believe that fake news distributed in the lead up to this year's presidential election may have swayed public opinion in favour of Donald Trump. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has since announced plans to combat the circulation of fake news.

On Sunday 4 December police in Washington, D.C. arrested a self-radicalised gunman who entered a pizza restaurant and discharged a firearm after reading a fake news story. The man had claimed he wanted to "self-investigate" a conspiracy theory that linked the owners of the restaurant to a non-existent paedophile ring with supposed ties to Hillary Clinton in a incident that has been dubbed 'Pizzagate'.

Pope Francis on female priesthood
Pope Francis said spreading disinformation was ‘probably the greatest damage that the media can do’ Reuters